If there was anyone preternaturally destined to become a Chicago House DJ, it might have been Sean Haley. Born and raised in Chicago, he grew up on a steady diet of soul, thanks to a father he said was also a DJ. He called himself a “fan and student” of Ron Hardy, Steve “Silk” Hurley, Frankie Knuckles and Lil Louis – the pioneers of the Chicago House sound.
Sean, who passed away last week, had a voracious appetite for music coupled with an exquisite taste for what he called “the soul tradition in underground dance music.”
“If it can be played on a turntable, it’s in my collection,” he said in a 2009 video. Sean understood that digging was part of a DJ’s job description – and that rather than a chore or bore, this was maybe the best part.
Yet his pursuit of quality music didn’t stop with Instagram selfies and social media boasting. Sean was a working DJ. He didn’t just wear headphones in his avatar (actually, he didn’t even do that). He came from a tradition which held that records were made (and acquired) to be played, and that knowledge was useless if it wasn’t shared. One may boast of the size or variety of a record collection, but not of its value. Its value comes from the people that listen to it. I don’t know if this was a guiding principle for Sean, but it certainly reflects his varied and brilliant DJ sets. He shared those too.
Back in 2007, Sean brought his project with Scorp (aka Scorpeze), Windimoto, to the attention of 5 Mag and myself personally. We wrote it up, it was a positive review – yet it’s a project that I think grows more brilliant with the passage of time, and a review couldn’t have foreseen that.
Ten years ago, I remember that hip hop was seen by what passed for the American dance music industry as ascendant. Seemingly everyone was trying to bring a “hip hop influence” into house and there are some truly cringeworthy relics boxed up and forgotten in Traxsource’s basement from those days.
Windimoto combined house, hip hop, R&B – there’s that “soul tradition of underground dance music” again – in a way that wasn’t cornball or cheesy. The secret was in the name – combining the soul traditions of Chicago and Detroit by two veteran and battle-hardened student-practitioners. Eight or nine years on, “chill” is everywhere – deep house vibes with hip hop beats and R&B musicality has a fanbase that reaches far beyond the threshold of any nightclub. Windimoto was one of the unacknowledged midwives for this rebirth of cool.
DJing Is a Communal Act
When writing this article, I searched through about 13 years of 5 Mag’s photo archives. We had none in which he was photographed alone, many in which he was standing in a group and a ton in which his head poked out in the back of a crowd, oblivious to the camera or anything but the music and the vibe.
Sean was always working with other people. Nearly all of his records were collaborations. Aside from Windimoto, I strongly urge readers to check out his I-94 EP with Glenn Underground that Ricardo Miranda released last year on Noble Square Recordings. Also of note: Deep Rooted, his collaboration with Sean Owens which released the Earthtones LP, and “Southside Afrikan,” a single with Cordell Johnson.
It was possibly a nod to this reputation for working with other artists that he dubbed his solo album Ronin, after the wandering, masterless samurai of Japanese culture. It’s a remarkable record, showing the beat appreciation of a man who prayed to the soul of the drum.
All You Love You Take With You
My last interaction with Sean came on Twitter. We were roasting New York Knick fans. I always reflect on my last conversation with people who have moved on from this world, sometimes with regret for all the things that conversation should have been about but weren’t. But that was how I knew Sean. I don’t regret it all.
It was on Twitter (where he was both prolific and amazingly funny) that Sean often called himself a “black nerd.” He was actually one of the coolest people I’ve met – he radiated it. Real recognizing real, he also had incredibly cool friends. The outpouring of love for him after his death in mid-July showed a wide array of people far beyond our humble local music scene whose lives he touched.
The loss of someone like Sean Haley – but specifically of Sean Haley – is immeasurable. But if you wanted to try to take a toll, you could weigh that loss in the records he’ll never make, plus the records he’ll never inspire others to make, and records he won’t pull out of his bins and inspire other people to check out for themselves.